This spring I was surprised to hear a friend tell me she was glad her spring allergies are back, because that means the winter is over. Although nobody likes the itchy eyes, sneezing and running noses that some unfortunate people suffer through every year, your allergies can be prevented while in the comfort of your own home. That is an important distinction that some people never notice and are suffering unnecessarily.
Cleaning furniture and flooring and keeping windows and doors closed are things everyone should be doing to reduce dust and pollen inside but there may be hidden causes that may be the main culprit in circulating unwanted pollen. These culprits have most likely been present since the home was built and are also causing you to overpay your utility bill. They are air and duct leakage and how the framing, drywall and insulation were installed aka the thermal boundary and they may be residing in your home.
The Problem: Our Homes
Small and large holes from any penetrations and duct connections in the house are not only a major source of energy loss but also can have negative health and air quality affects. Every other week your home may get a good cleaning from dust build-up and the regular activities; now imagine how much more you would have to clean if a 12-inch by 12-inch hole was made directly to the attic and was just left there. Put a large fan above the hole pushing your attic air into your home, and you’ll get a clear picture of the negative effects of duct and air leakage on an average home in the US.
How do I come into contact with the insulation if I can't see it and it's in the attic?
One idea is that it is in the air we breath. How do insulation particles get into our homes air? They get into our home by two ways.
1) from air leakage and connections from the house to the attic.
2) from the ductwork
Air leakage occurs when there is a small hole in the the ceiling or wall from electrical and plumbing penetrations, recessed canned lights, around registers and exhaust fans and windows and door frames. These holes can be enlargened greatly by the heating and cooling system pressures in the house. By air sealing all the little holes and gaps in the attic and to the outside you will help block the transfer of insulation particles.
The ductwork is most likely the main culprit of attic insulation particles getting into the house and the increase in home allergens. Any holes in the duct leakage return side (where your filter is) is directly sucking attic air into the heating and cooling system. This insulation-contaminated air does not get filtered because it occurs behind the filter then gets distributed to all the supply registers and into your home.
To recap, homeowners can easily reduce the allergens and dust and significantly improve the air quality of their home by doing the following steps.
1. Sealing the duct leakage
2. Making sure your existing insulation is properly installed
3. Air sealing the attic and outside holes off from the house
4. Balancing the airflow and room pressures
We have seen positive results by doing these four measures time and time again with our clients and you can have the same results by improving the air quality of your home for years to come if you follow the same steps and choose the right type of insulation for your needs.
Duct leakage explained
Duct leakage is common to every home and it is so important because the air handler is putting the distribution system under a lot of pressure, so a hole the size of a penny becomes a hole the size of a basketball under pressure. On the return side where you change your filter, a negative pressure is sucking in dirty attic air post filter and distributing that throughout the house. Want to stop indoor allergies; don’t clean your ductwork until you seal your ductwork first. Do unwanted critters frequent your home? Try sealing all the holes in the house from wires and plumbing vents to recessed lights.
Insulation performance explained
All attics are dusty but if the insulation is not in contact with the drywall, you can bet your attic will be excessively dusty and that dust will find a way into your home through air and duct leakage. Insulation is like a blanket, it needs to be touching your body to keep you warm. If the insulation is not in contact with the drywall (attic floor or kneewalls) as is sometimes the case because of electrical wires walking studs, recessed lighting or changes in the ceiling height that insulation is not working. The gap between the drywall and the insulation allows air to pass through the insulation, depositing dust and dirt on the insulation. That’s why you may see a cloud of dust form if you just touch your insulation. If the insulation was installed directly over an electrical penetration, leaky recessed lights or any gaps between the drywall- that insulation will be darkened with dust deposits. All the dust in the attic is more likely to enter the home and worsen allergen reactions.
Both the APS Home Energy Audit program and SRP Home Energy Audit program will assess and measure the condition of a home’s ductwork, air leakage and insulation performance among other tests. A cost savings analysis is given to each homeowner upon completing the home energy audit but the main benefit that some homeowners will feel is the cleaner indoor air quality, reduced dust and allergens and a more comfortable home. Learn more energy saving tips here and visit our friends at everyday health to learn many more tips on stopping home allergens here.
Who is the greenest insulation manufacturer?
Being a home performance contractor we offer our clients all types of insulation products and manufacturers depending on preferences and the conditions of your home. Our approach is to educate first then let our customers decide. That is why we don't just stick to one manufacturer or product like cellulose, spray foam or fiberglass.
There are several ways to look at the green attributes of insulation. One angle is that you are going to save energy on your utility bills and reduce your carbon footprint. Insulation saves 12 times the amount of energy the first year it is installed than it takes to manufacture it, so energy conservation is definitely more green than sustainable energy production. This is highly dependent on your home and how the insulation product is installed, not just how much you have. Another angle is to look at the material that is diverted from landfills as is the case with cellulose, denim or even recycled fiberglass batt insulation. The final way a product can be green is during is what is in it, how many chemicals and things get put in that are bad for your health, like formaldehyde.
There is no getting around the fact that insulation is far from chemical free, but it is an essential ingredient to help keeping our homes nice and cool in the summer and toasty warm in the winter. Fiberglass batt insulation is itchy, causes rashes and respiratory problems, and is a known carcinogen when inhaled with attic dust. Newly installed loose fill fiberglass insulation is slightly better for respiratory effects, is not as itchy and relatively inert. In both types of fiberglass insulation you will find rodents, critter infestation and its feces if they are present in your attic. Cellulose insulation tends to be a rodent repellent due to the added boron. Although cellulose insulation gets labeled as the greenest type of insulation because it's primary component is recycled newspaper, there are still a good amount of chemicals directly mixed in such as boron and boric acid and indirectly such as old ink, dyes, solvents, formaldehyde, chlorine, fluorine, lead, iron compounds, sulfur compounds, cadmium, nitric oxide and methane. These trace chemicals are estimated to account for 20% of the composition of cellulose insulation.
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